Many of Michigan’s American Indian tribes are returning to traditional foods to improve nutrition and sustain their culture. One of these foods is walleye, a native fish harvested from lakes and rivers.
Now USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is helping the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, raise walleye in order to restock local waterways.
Treaties between the United States government and Michigan Indian tribes give tribal members the right to harvest fish, including in some areas through spearfishing, and to hunt and gather. To ensure that walleye populations are not depleted, tribes stock the fish in lakes and rivers.
The Lac Vieux Desert Band was the first tribe in Michigan to work with NRCS to develop walleye rearing ponds. NRCS provided both financial and technical assistance for the project.
NRCS first began working with the tribe in 1998 by conducting soil studies to help them identify land suitable for tribal housing. Later, the tribe requested assistance in constructing walleye rearing ponds.
Before building the rearing ponds, the Lac Vieux Desert Band had stocked walleye fry, measuring between a quarter-inch and one-half-inch long, in local lakes and rivers. But the survival rate for walleye fry in the wild is low, so the tribe decided to construct ponds to grow the fry into one-and-a-half-inch-long fingerlings. The walleye are hatched from eggs harvested from local fish.
The project faced many hurdles, including the fact that NRCS in Michigan had never helped fund a walleye rearing pond before. No one knew precisely how much the ponds would cost to build or how much of that funding NRCS could provide.
In addition, the tribe does not own much land, and finding a suitable site for the ponds was a challenge. One potential site contained archeological remains and another was home to an eagle nest. Luckily a good site was finally found, and once the ponds were completed, everything else went smoothly.
The tribe began releasing fingerlings raised in the ponds in 2010.
Two other Upper Peninsula tribes, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, have also constructed walleye rearing ponds with NRCS assistance.
In 2011, all three tribes stocked local rivers and lakes with pond-raised walleye. With the success of the Upper Peninsula tribes’ rearing ponds, other tribes in Michigan are now considering building their own ponds.
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